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The Concert Hall, the Soul Temple

Philharmonie Berlin

Busy city street. Crowds of people, fighting for space on the busy sidewalks create a human puzzle on the pavement. Cars, buses and vans are competing for every inch of tarmac. Noise and hassle. Stress and anxiety.

Short of breath and raging you reach your destination: The Concert Hall. Suddenly, as if in a parallel reality, you are in a different world. You have been transported well above the clouds of smoke and anger to a space of light and peace. A place of beauty and promise. You can now switch off and turn off your phone. No more anxiety. No more stress. For many, the concert hall is the urban temple where the body and soul can take a little break from the daily worry. A healthy mind in a hopefully healthy body.

Although this is all a bit too metaphorical and poetic, historically the theaters and the concert halls have served an important purpose as a social hub. The theatre in Ancient Greece was the place where the citizens would celebrate their beloved god of wine, cry at a bloody tragedy, laugh at an absurd comedy and marvel at stories about odd creatures. In the Elizabethan theatre Shakespeare and the King’s Men would take the commoners and the wealthy ladies and gentlemen to Italy, Greece and Scotland, all of them travelling on the same boat, nearly in the same class as the only real divide between the classes would be a cushion and a wooden roof. Beethoven and his contemporaries would create a popular music festival and invite not only the Austrian Emperor and the Russian princes, but also all the citizens of Vienna to listen to some astonishing and noisy new music in a beautiful and stylish Viennese concert venue.

The most famous concert halls in the world have such moving stories behind their constructions, that each one deserves a Netflix series of its own. From the first pilot episode introducing the remarkable character who would always be a dreamer with a daring vision of the future, through the many seasons with new characters: supporters, opponents, heavily criticised famous architects, prima donnas, superstars … the Concert Hall TV drama could take Downton Abbey and The Crown for a ride.

The building of a concert hall has, in most cases, an incredible significance for the city that is watching it rise. What else could it be compared to if not to the most prominent temples of the past? It is a tremendously expensive venture which must deliver not only on its merits as a building but should also have the perfect acoustic needed for a musical performance. It is not just a place for music, but a display of the highest virtuosity of mathematics, physics and architecture.

So why is it that some of the richest people in the world and governments commit to building a concert hall instead of a shopping mall? Well, because as the temple (contrary to a shopping mall) it unifies people. It builds common grounds, moral structures, promotes peace and brotherhood. And after all, let’s admit it: the power of the collective appreciation of music performance is impossible to be surpassed by almost anything.

It is impossible to cover all the major concert halls in one article and therefore we will do it in several episodes. So here we go:

Season 1/ Episode 1

The Royal Albert Hall, London. A love song.

‘It is my wish that this hall should bear his name to whom it will owes its existence, and be called The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences’.

Queen Victoria

The Royal Albert Hall is the lasting love legacy of Queen Victoria to her beloved Prince Albert. “Behind every successful man there stands a woman”, however in the case of Queen Victoria there was a very special man, a true visionary, who stood behind her. Prince Albert’s contribution to the development of science, the arts, technology and modernisation was what created the glory of the Victorian era and the lasting legacy of the British Empire around the world. To his love for the arts, music and science and the scale of his vision the world owes The Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, The V&A, Imperial College, the Crystal Palace, the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Arts. At Prince Albert’s wish the whole world is still invited to visit and enjoy the major museums in London free of charge.

Prince Albert was not to see the real glory of his efforts. He dies in 1861, aged only 42, leaving Victoria and nine children behind. Victoria is devastated and falls into deep depression. She will wear black clothes until the end of her life. The proposal for a concert hall and a monument commemorating the great prince is what takes her out of her isolation and the proposal is approved in 1871. The site is purchased with some of the profits from the Great Exhibition in 1851.

The design was by two civil engineers, both educated at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich: Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Y. D. Scott. Perhaps the troubles with the acoustics in the hall came from the fact that the famous dome made of steel and glass was not suitable for a musical performance, nor in fact for a comfortable audience.

The Dome is first assembled in Manchester. The structure looks promising although there is a huge risk that it might collapse once installed over the amphitheatrical structure of the hall. The dome is then taken apart and transported to London by horse and cart to be reassembled on site. When the time for the supporting columns and structure to be removed comes, Major-General Henry Y.D. Scott asks everybody to leave in case the dome collapses. Once all the people are evacuated, he himself removes the last supporting pole. The dome drops just a few inches but does not collapse. Victory! The structure is sound. However it creates an enormous echo and generates terrible heat. For a long time the joke circulating amongst the musical circles in London was that the Royal Albert Hall was "the only place where a British composer could hear his work twice." Many things have since been done to improve the acoustics in the hall including the most successful to date: the installation of the famous "Mushrooms”: in 1968, the Acoustical Investigation Research Organisation Limited surveyed the acoustics in the Hall with several tests, one of which involved an acoustic technician using a reflector microphone whilst another fired a starting pistol and another played the bassoon. On their advice, 135 ‘flying saucers’ filled with glass fibre wool were suspended above the arena to diffuse the reverberations.

Around the outside of the building is an 800-foot–long terracotta mosaic frieze, depicting "The Triumph of Arts and Sciences", in reference to the Hall's dedication. Proceeding anti-clockwise from the north side the sixteen subjects of the frieze are:

  1. Various Countries of the World bringing in their Offerings to the Exhibition of 1851

  2. Music

  3. Sculpture

  4. Painting

  5. Princes, Art Patrons and Artists

  6. Workers in Stone

  7. Workers in Wood and Brick

  8. Architecture

  9. The Infancy of the Arts and Sciences

  10. Agriculture

  11. Horticulture and Land Surveying

  12. Astronomy and Navigation

  13. A Group of Philosophers, Sages and Students

  14. Engineering

  15. The Mechanical Powers

  16. Pottery and Glassmaking

The frieze states:

This hall was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort.

Indeed the building has become the symbolic hub of British culture and inclusiveness hosting not only musical events, rock concerts, tennis tournaments, Eurovision contests and Miss World, but also Albert Einstein and his "Einstein Meeting" in support of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and The Festival of Science.

The hall is the home of the longest and most prestigious music festival in the world - The Proms.

The Promenade Concerts originated as a concept which would gradually entice and educate more people into the concert hall. People would enter the hall from their walk in the park, would have a glass of wine and smoke a cigarette whilst enjoying a piece of music. The selection of the music would include very popular, simple tunes, but also works from major composers. Henry Wood, who turned down the offers to become Chief Conductor of the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony, believing his duty was to serve in the United Kingdom and to follow the vision of the great Prince, taught the wide British audience how to appreciate Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and Strauss amongst many others. The success of his effort and Robert Newman's vision is demonstrated by the huge popularity of the eight week summer season at which the most prominent musicians from around the word perform in London in the sold out Royal Albert Hall.

During the Second World War, the German pilots spared the destruction of the Royal Albert Hall simply because they used it as a landmark during their night air raids over London. They also saved the life of St. Paul's Cathedral for the same reasons. The two most important cupolas in London - the one of the biggest church and the other of the biggest concert hall - saved the Nation's most precious buildings. The Faith and the Love for humanity and progress survived.

The Royal Albert Hall is celebrating its 150th birthday. It has so many stories to tell. Stories of beauty, of courage, of novelty, of vision. But above all it tells a story about love. If you don't believe me, go and visit. It will undoubtedly move you to tears.


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